What is Roe v Wade, and could a new case overturn US abortion rights?

by Christine Murray | @chrissiemurray | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 18 May 2021 18:13 GMT

FILE PHOTO: Abortion rights activists rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, U.S., May 21, 2019. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo

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The U.S. Supreme Court says it would take up a case from Mississippi that could mean re-evaluating Roe v. Wade. But what is it and what does it mean for abortion rights?

By Christine Murray

May 18 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) -The U.S. Supreme Court said this week it would take up a case from Mississippi that could mean re-evaluating Roe v. Wade - a central ruling from the 1970s that legalized abortion.

Abortion rights groups fear the now conservative-leaning court could overturn parts of the landmark decision and severely restrict access for women to terminate pregnancies.

But what is it and what does it mean?

What is Roe v. Wade?

In 1973 the U.S. Supreme Court made a landmark ruling known as Roe v. Wade that said a woman's decision to have an abortion was covered under the right to privacy.

The case involved a woman under the pseudonym of Jane Roe and prosecutor Henry Wade in the state of Texas, where abortion was only allowed when the pregnant woman's life was at risk.

The justices voted 7-2 that restrictions on abortion had to be narrowly drawn and that the constitution protected the right to abortion before the stage at which a fetus could survive outside the womb, between 24 and 28 weeks.

"The detriment that the State would impose upon the pregnant woman by denying this choice altogether is apparent," the ruling said.

FILE PHOTO: An anti-abortion activist rallies outside the U.S. Supreme Court during the the 47th annual March for Life in Washington, U.S., January 24, 2020. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo

What happened since Roe v. Wade?

Abortion remains a divisive issue in the United States, as in many countries. Christian conservatives are among those most opposed to it.

For decades, conservative activists and politicians have tried to overturn and chip away at the Roe v. Wade ruling.

Lawmakers in states from Arkansas to Utah have been trying to pass bills that limit abortion rights, with efforts emboldened under President Donald Trump.

Trump nominated three of the nine Supreme Court justices during his four year term, tilting the balance firmly towards conservatives. Six of the justices in total were appointed by Republican presidents.

U.S. abortion rates have steadily declined since the early 1980s, reaching the lowest levels on record in recent years, according to the nonprofit Guttmacher Institute.

Still, the majority of Americans believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, according to a 2019 survey by Pew Research Center said.


What will happen now?

During the next Supreme Court term - which starts in October - the nine justices will consider a case from the state of Mississippi known as Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization.

The central issue to be decided is the constitutionality of laws that ban abortions before a fetus is viable outside the womb.

The Mississippi state law in question bans abortion after 15 weeks without any exceptions for rape or incest and was blocked by a federal court in 2019.

Abortion rights activists argue that any rollback would have immediate knock on effects across the country.

"The consequences of a Roe reversal would be devastating. Over 20 states would prohibit abortion outright," said Nancy Northup, President of the Center for Reproductive Rights.

Some states have 'trigger laws' that would instantly ban abortion if Roe v Wade is overturned.

What is happening elsewhere?   

The coronavirus pandemic has impacted abortions around the world, with lockdowns preventing access in some places, while elsewhere at-home abortions pills have become easier to obtain.

But the world's legislatures, courts and politicians have also continued to expand or roll back rights.

Argentina became the first major country in Latin America to legalize abortion in January.

In March, the UK government published legislation to force Northern Ireland to implement more liberal abortion services. 

Poland has been implementing a strict ban on terminating pregnancies.

A recent article published in the British Medical Journal said that inequities in abortion access in Europe had widened during the pandemic.

Related stories:

U.S. states making 2021 moves on abortion rights and access 

U.S. voters split over abortion access in election votes 

Abortion rights hotspots in 2021 as Argentina grants approval

(Reporting by Christine Murray; Editing by Lin Taylor and Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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